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Women in Big Data Founders

International Women’s Day – Karen Matthys

Karen Matthys

Women in Big Data is spotlighting amazing women

By Karen Matthys

Executive Director, External Partners at Stanford’s Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering (ICME). I lead an eco-system of ICME faculty, students, corporate affiliates and other external partners who collaborate throughout the year in areas such as research, new curriculum development and recruitment.  I have been a lecturer and instructor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and School of Engineering, teaching courses that include the AI for Good seminar class in 2020. I am a Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Women in Data Science Conference, which reaches over 100,000 participants globally each year.

Outside of Stanford, I have extensive experience in business strategy and marketing at high-tech companies ranging from start-ups to Fortune 500s.  I held management roles at Apple Computer and Cellular One, and a Senior Partner at Indigo Partners consulting company.  I hold an MBA from Stanford University, and a BS degree in Systems Engineering from the University of Virginia.

As a kid I loved music and started in college as a liberal arts major.  I didn’t even consider engineering because there were no women role models or mentors. However, I always liked math and problem solving, and was eventually inspired by a senior advisor to switch into engineering.  There weren’t many women in my classes, and I encountered even fewer after graduation as a telecom engineer at GTE.  I went to my first tech conference on fiber optics and I don’t recall a single woman speaker or panelist!

When I started working in the Stanford School of Engineering 6 years ago, I had the same experience – when I attended technical conferences and events around the world I saw very few women on stage.

My role as Executive Director is focused on building bridges and collaboration between industry, academia, government and nonprofits.  I believe cross-sector collaboration is essential to solving the world’s greatest challenges.  Likewise, having more women and minorities involved is critical.  Studies show that diverse teams outperform others, they are more likely to avoid blind spots and biases, and they can bring the broadest range of perspectives to design solutions that meet the needs of everyone. I am passionate about ensuring that all voices have a seat at the table to understand and solve the global problems of the foreseeable future.

I co-founded the Women in Data Science (WiDS) initiative with two amazing people – Stanford professor Margot Gerritsen and Esteban Arcaute from Walmart Labs – back in 2015.  Our aim was to inspire more women to join the field, educate everyone on the latest data science and AI technologies, and support women at all levels of their studies and careers.

Now in our 6th year, WiDS reaches over 100,000 people worldwide.  In 2020 there were over 180 events held in 50+ countries.  Along with the WIDS conference, we’ve launched a WiDS podcast series, a datathon to build women’s skills around predictive analytics, an education outreach program for secondary school students and educators, and a new workshop series which is taught by outstanding women instructors.  There is something for everyone as they range from introductory data science topics to intermediate/advanced areas, and we’ll roll out more workshops throughout the year.

These results don’t happen without a strong core team and many global partners. I feel very fortunate to work with an incredible group to accomplish all of this.  Margot Gerritsen, Judy Logan and myself lead WiDS as Co-Directors, and we have an extremely dedicated team, plus an absolutely outstanding worldwide network of women as well as men passionate about bringing more diversity to the field.  I am truly inspired by all of them!

Outside of work, music is still something I love and lately I’ve restarted playing my old LP records on a turntable again which my kids find rather strange.  I also love traveling and new adventures.  I’ve lived and worked in several cities in the US, as well as in Bangkok, Sydney, Tokyo, London and Amsterdam.  My husband and I have dragged our four kids on these international adventures, too!

My career journey

After several years working as a telecommunications engineer, I went back to school for a graduate degree – an MBA at Stanford – and then worked at Apple for many years in product management and product marketing.  I had fun running around the world launching Macintosh computers and will never forget one new product introduction event where I was driven in a golf cart onto the main stage by Steve Wozniak!  That Apple experience working as the bridge between engineering teams, customers and the rest of the company was invaluable.  It gave me some great insights into leading interdisciplinary teams and looking at a problem from different perspectives.

Today as an Executive Director at Stanford, my role is to bring together many different groups – students, faculty, companies, national labs and more – for meaningful collaboration around computational math, data science and AI.

Along with the WiDS initiative, another critical focus for me is raising awareness about data science ethics, and the potential for serious unintended consequences.  I’ve seen countless examples of well-meaning technologists who fail to consider the biases, trust issues, or other problems that will arise with their work.

My goal is to ensure that the next generation of technology leaders are critical thinkers who incorporate a broad range of constituents’ input from the very start, and ask the tough questions about responsible usage of technologies.  To that end, it’s been a pleasure developing and co-teaching courses at Stanford such as the AI for Good seminar class last year.  I also co-launched a new project-based learning class, the “Analytics Accelerator”, that involves students from a number of Stanford departments working together on research using real world data.  We are training students on design-thinking, multi-disciplinary team building, and data ethics.

What motivates me?

I am hopeful that by the year 2030 we will see a real change – the WiDS biggest aim is to have at least 30% women at all levels of data science roles and studies by that time.  We call this our 30by30 goal.

What bothers me?

It is frustrating that many years after I graduated from Engineering School, the percentage of women getting degrees in engineering and computer science still hasn’t changed significantly.  There also remains a lack of female role models at senior levels, and women who are in data science and AI often struggle to get their fair share of visibility.

Quotes or inspirations I live by

My mother was a great inspiration – when we were children she read me stories about early American heroines, and she had her own impressive story. She went from being a legal secretary to a CEO.  She showed me that anything is possible!

Message I’d like to share with an awesome one community of 17000+ women in big data and worldwide. ….

I love the proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.”  I believe our global WiDS community is truly that village that will lead to much greater opportunities for all children in the future. We’ve been very impressed by the Women in Big Data organization and we’ve really appreciated the collaboration over the past 5 years.  Our goals are very much in sync. I hope you all will find meaningful ways to work with us and the global WiDS community going forward.  We are always open to hearing your ideas!

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